The Impact of Racial and Ethnic Bias in Criminal Sentencing Decisions

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Literature Review

Judicial bias pertaining to race and ethnicity is a controversial phenomenon that has been researched historically, and continues in contemporary society. One of the first criminologists to analyse this was Beccaria (1764) in Dei delitti e delle penne (an essay on crime and punishments), he argued that judicial process favoured the wealthy and powerful to the detriment of the less fortunate, his research had a profound impact on historical judicial process and reformation of criminal law. Since that time numerous researchers have methodically reviewed, dissected and reframed theory on judicial bias in relation to race and ethnicity in sentencing decisions. Empirical data demonstrates vast disparity and reveals a juxtaposition of conflicting theories pertaining to race, ethnicity, and sentencing outcomes. For many years, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have been over-represented throughout the criminal justice system. Walker (2003), Spohn (2000, 2002), Kault (2002) and DeLone (2000, 2003) have researched extensively on this topic and theorise that there are several facets of what they refer to as a “discrimination-disparity continuum.” They argue that discrimination is ‘systemic’ and experienced at each stage of the criminal justice system. For example, ‘institutionalised discrimination’ is due to the impact of policies and procedures that are implemented without discriminatory intent, and yet adversely affect minorities. Further to this is the over-policing of targeted racial and ethnic communities, Walker, Spohn, and DeLone (2003) refer to this as ‘contextual discrimination’ this then sees an exponential increase in entry into the criminal justice system and impacts on higher incarceration rates. Further research by Taxman and Byrne (2005) theorised that racial and ethnic disparity is a cumulative process prior to sentencing. They argued that this occurs due to differential rates of involvement in criminal behaviours and...
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